ARTS Heavyweight champion

SHOW PEOPLE BEN KINGSLEY

IT IS hard not to feel sorry for Ben Kingsley. "I would love to play the Joker in Batman," he said in 1990, after playing the lead in Shostakovich on Channel 4. Three years later, after his moving performance as the accountant Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, he realised, to his horror, that he had played no fewer than 11 isolated, tragic figures since Gandhi in 1983. "This isn't funny any more," he said. "I'm just hoping some happier, more social sort of roles will come my way."

The bad news is that he still hasn't been asked to play the Joker. The good news is that his latest role - a suspected torturer and victim in the film version of Ariel Dorfman's play, Death and the Maiden - takes pride of place as number 12 in his list of heavyweights, among them Lenin, the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Dmitri Shostakovich, Basil Pascali, Itzhak Stern, and of course Gandhi. And like all of those per- formances, it's an extraordinary achievement: harrowing to watch, meticulously observed.

Kingsley is aware that he might seem a trifle dour. He takes acting more seriously than most, directing workshops and writing articles on the subject, and his preparation for roles is legendary, up there with De Niro and Brando. When he played Gandhi, a part which won him an Oscar, he learnt to spin cotton, practised yoga and lived on a frugal vegetarian diet. The sort of character roles which he has made his own are emotionally gruelling, dangerous even. Particularly the way he plays them.

"Schindler's List nearly wiped me out," he says. "I was pretty burnt out after that. I really had to consciously work hard on allowing the boundaries not to completely dissolve between myself and the character. We all know that if those boundaries get loose and wobbly, and out of the actor's control . . . there is a list of my colleagues who have had nervous breakdowns. It is a very serious business. And anyone who laughs at those who take risks and injure themselves psychologically or physically, ought really to examine what we do for a living. It's bloody hard, actually. It has its danger zones, and we have to learn to negotiate them."

So why, then, did he agree to do another harrowing role so soon after Schindler's List? Directed by Roman Polanski, Death and the Maiden has lost none of the psychological intensity of the original play. It is set in a nameless democracy which has recently overthrown its dictator and Kingsley's character, Dr Miranda, is suspected of committing hideous crimes under the old regime. One of his apparent victims, Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), confronts and subjects him to a brutal trial of her own. "After Schindler's List, I made a pronouncement that as an actor I was no longer in the victim business. But I was quite surprised at how easy it was to say yes when Roman asked me."

The film's political content made it a difficult film for Kingsley to turn down. In the Seventies and Eighties, he was closely associated with the Solidarity Campaign in Chile, Ariel Dorfman's home country. But one suspects it was the dramatic qualities which ultimately proved irresistible. Dr Miranda is a dream role, allowing Kingsley to play with the audience's constantly changing sympathies. And there is something about his stillness, his big and beseeching brown eyes, the measured rhythm of his voice, at once pensive and determined, which makes him particularly suited to the part and its inherent ambiguity. His searching gaze, the way he hangs his arms so straight by his sides, the snorting laugh - these are gestures which encourage rather than enforce interpretation. Is he demotic or just frightened? It was the same with Gandhi, in which he captured the vulnerability and persuasiveness of a wise old man with that flat-footed, strident walk.

There is one scene in Death and the Maiden which particularly sticks in the memory: Dr Miranda is tied to a chair, blood flowing down his forehead, his mouth bound up tightly with very real masking tape. A nave question to put to someone like Ben Kingsley, perhaps, but didn't it hurt? "Oh but it was wonderful," he grins, "it's all information from the actor. Just as much as when Sigourney says, `You f***ing c***'. Those are the words and that's what she says to me. She doesn't whisper `Sorry' afterwards. The tape is the tape, the words are the words, the blood did go into my eye. It stung."

He's a sucker for punishment, no question, but he seems to be thriving on it. He has finally learnt to make the creative leap, he says, between himself and his parts. He no longer walks around with his character welded onto his face day and night. "The rewards are much greater if you let go in the evenings, and make that leap from you to the character take after take, day after day. I think what I am enjoying now is learning to let go. I am OK."

Before Schindler's List took its toll, Kingsley was getting closer to realising his ambition of playing the Joker. In 1991, he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Meyer Lansky, the canny mobster in Bugsy. He played a menacing villain in Sneakers, and also appeared as vice-president in Dave, the political spoof with Kevin Kline as a presidential look-alike. Those films were the result of a conscious decision to court mainstream Hollywood, where they like nothing better than an English villain (Steven Berkoff, Alan Rickman, etc). But despite the work and a close friendship, forged by Schindler's List, with Steven Spielberg ("I can't imagine life without him"), Kingsley refuses to live in America. "I get very angry with this country, but I love the language, the culture, the people, the possibilities for new ways of thinking. I couldn't call anywhere else home." Home was North Yorkshire - where he was born, as Krishna Bhanji, in 1943 - and is now London.

Before Ghandi, Kingsley spent 15 years with the RSC and the National Theatre, playing the title roles in Othello and Hamlet at Stratford. He never went to drama school, but theatre ran in the family: he is the son of an actress, Anna Goodman, and a Kenyan-Indian doctor. Even so, Kingsley says it was only when he won his Oscar that he felt like a real actor.

For all Kingsley's comedic ambitions, there will be those who see Death and the Maiden and claim he is only capable of playing one kind of role. But when he does them this well, who cares? "I think that comedies are pretty hard to do, by the way," he says. "My next role is going to be Moses." Just for one moment I thought he was going to say Max Wall. "Moses is not a victim. He is in charge of his own calling. He is his own man." A bit like Kingsley, really.

Jon Stock

! `Death and the Maiden' (18) opened on Fri. Quentin Curtis's review appears in the main paper.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on